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Top 5 drinks to pair with Lions tour

The British & Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand is well underway with the first match against an All Black side set for this weekend – what to drink?

The best (hopefully) British and Irish rugby players are currently on their very occasional tours of New Zealand as a ‘Lions’ team.

They have already played four games so far. The tour began simply enough with a win against a semi-pro team earlier this month, but taking on New Zealand’s super rugby teams was a different matter. The first match saw the Lions fall to the Blues, but then they rallied to see off an unbeaten (to that point) Crusaders team. Unfortunately, they lost again this week (just) to the Highlanders, so are two wins from four now going into the first match against scary men dressed in black this Saturday (17 June).

The Maori All Blacks are not the national team of the same name as members of the squad have to prove they have Maori ancestry but it includes players with past and current caps for the fearsome national All Blacks.

As such this will no doubt prove to be proper test-level rugby before the men in red go on to face the really scary men in black on 24 June (via the Chiefs on the 20th).

For those watching in the UK, the kick off time of 8.35am is perhaps more conducive to a cup of tea and a bacon roll than drams of whisky and bottles of wine.

For those watching different time zones however, or for those without Sky catching up on the highlights then this minor inconvenience is no such barrier.

The Lions already have several drinks sponsors, with Sharp’s Doom Bar the ‘official beer’, Slingsby Gin putting the ‘G’ into ‘G&T’, Whyte & Mackay’s whiskies on hand to steady the nerves and Mud House’s wines effortlessly showing off New Zealand’s winemaking prowess.

On the other hand, as with our annual beer recommendations before the NFL Super Bowl, what you choose to drink at home is entirely your own choice and each of the competing nations has enough vinous, brewing and distilling prowess between them to cover all bases.

The Lions are one of those rare hybrid teams where both players and fans put aside their normal national interests and differences to work together and support each other.

As such, why not treat it as a time to explore the great drinks being produced throughout these small islands and, more generally, it’s a chance to celebrate that fact that while the Britain, Ireland and New Zealand might be smaller countries than most, they’re also producing some of the best rugby and best drinks in the world.


Top drinks: stout/whiskey

We all know that if there’s one drink tied, if not welded, to the idea of Irish rugby it’s stout and, in particular, Guinness.

And sure, lay in a crate of the black stuff if you must but as everyone knows it doesn’t taste the same as it does in St James’s.

Another idea to toast the men in green…in red, is with another Gaelic classic – whisk(e)y. So if your drinks cabinet is otherwise full of Scotch why not head across the water and root out an Irish malt instead?

There’s no denying the Irish whiskey scene is dominated by just a few big brands but there’s an emerging cadre of smaller distillers focused on single malts and even single estate whiskies.

Perfect fodder for the discerning drinker to get their teeth into while arguing whether Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell should be first pick.


Top drinks: gin/craft beer

‘Not whisky?’ you cry. Well, no. Surely you’re already on a ferry to Dublin to track down your first bottle of Irish malt, whatever do you need more of it for?

Like Guinness, a Highland or Islay malt would be too obvious a choice here. Scotland doesn’t yet produce any wine but it does have a fantastically vibrant craft beer scene that’s well worth exploring.

It hardly needs mentioning that one of the UK’s original and now most successful craft beer brands, BrewDog, is a Scottish enterprise and it’s not alone in its commitment to great suds. Little known south of the border there are also some cracking real ales from small breweries the length and breadth of the country. Two of the most satisfying beer drinking experiences for this writer have been with a tankard (no, really) of Scottish beer in hand.

Yet if there’s one drink with which to mourn both the criminally small Scottish contingent in this Lions team and the unfair departure of the talented Stuart Hogg through injury, it’s gin.

Scotland has quietly been stealing some of England’s gin thunder over the past few years, with the production of Scottish gin booming to such an extent there’s now a gin distillery trail to follow.

Watch out Scotch.


Top drinks: wine/whisky

Good Welsh ale or mead might be appropriate but it would remiss not to mention the small but hugely exciting Welsh wine industry.

Although it plays second harp to its larger English neighbour, Welsh wine has been making its own waves and gaining listings in retailers such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

The majority of vineyards are located in the south-east of the principality and, like Scottish gin, there’s now a winery route you can follow.

Finally, not to be put out by their Celtic brethren, Wales has been building up another tiny but praiseworthy distilling industry.

With plenty of mountain spring water about Wales used to have a strong whisky industry but it went into terminal decline in the 19th century (driven under by a strong Methodist temperance movement) and was practically non-existent by the 20th.

Revived by the Welsh Whisky Company in 2000, the Welsh ‘industry’ now boasts two distilleries, with Dà Mhile having released its first single grain whisky last year.


Top drinks: beer/wine

A cop out at last by choosing English beer but it is the national drink while not wanting to disparage other very fine brewers throughout the UK and Ireland, English beer is made in such variety it’s impossible to leave out.

There’s been a boom in both the craft brewing and real ale scenes in England in the last few years not least in London where all manner of breweries (and distilleries too) have been popping up like crazy.

Whether it’s a crisp lager, hoppy pale ale or a classic mild or bitter, England’s brewers have it covered.

And also wine. There’s absolutely no denying now that much like the England rugby team under Eddie Jones, the English wine industry has built up a real head of steam.

Viticulture is now one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the UK and quality is coming on in leaps and bounds.

Here’s hoping Lions fans can be toasting a successful tour come 8 July with a glass of English fizz.

New Zealand

Top drinks: craft beer/wine

That is, of course, unless New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks have their say – and they probably will.

Kiwi fans can not only sit back and bask in the glory of their thumping 15 but they can do so with all manner of delicious drinks to hand.

The craft beer scene in New Zealand is small no doubt but has turned up all manner of excellent brews nonetheless, Yeastie Boys and Moa, anyone?

What’s more, stranded Kiwis stuck on the wrong rainy island on the far side of the world needn’t go without their favourite suds as many of them are widely available in the UK now.

As indeed is New Zealand’s foremost drinks export – wine. Yes, like English beer it’s a bit of an easy choice but like English beer and wine or Scottish gin and Irish and Welsh whisky, New Zealand’s wine scene is changing too.

Yes there’s the ever present Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc which has the wrecking ball clout of a rampaging (and now mercifully retired) Ma’a Nonu but wine lovers are now getting to experience a whole raft of new and exciting New Zealand wines.

Of course there are other Sauvignon Blancs from elsewhere in the country and the Pinot Noir scene has been developing nicely for some time now but there are also Hawke’s Bay Syrahs and Canterbury Chardonnay and Riesling as well as Gisborne Pinot Gris and Cabernet blends from Auckland.

Gosh, why do the former colonies have to be so good at everything?!

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